Five pieces of modern technology that improve old-car ownership – David Conwill @Hemmings

Five pieces of modern technology that improve old-car ownership – David Conwill @Hemmings


Hemmings Graphic Designer Josh Skibbee recently gave me a 1945-built Delta-Milwaukee drill press. It’s a whopping big cast-iron thing (despite being intended mostly for woodworking) with a a remarkably good parts supply and a deep following among vintage-machine aficionados. It’s a device perfectly on-theme for my workshop: old-time quality with modern support.

I like old stuff vintage material culture a lot. That’s probably an understatement. If my friends think of me as someone who enjoys history, they equally know that it was gazing on the stylish and over-built remnants of the 20th century Machine Age that piqued my interest in the topic. I wouldn’t want to live in the past, but I sure appreciate its artifacts.

I also recognize that my ability to make practical use of things made long before I was born is facilitated in no small part by living in the current era of high technology (and no, I don’t mean the 4.1L V-8 in my wife’s Cadillac). This drill press, with its ideal combination of vintage quality and practicable ownership demonstrates the perfect crossover of the modern and the old. It led me to reflect on the top five things I’m grateful for in present–and future–tech:

Old technical manuals are the best, but without the internet how would you learn about the tips and tricks (and corrections!) that enhance the vintage manual? In fact, it would be considerably harder to acquire the manual at all, without the internet.

The Internet

As time and technology march on, the know-how that built earlier ages is gradually lost. Paper goods are called “ephemera” for a reason—they don’t last forever without careful handling. Archives are small and spread out, but the greatest thing about the Information Age is that we can endlessly share digital files with that same information. A blueprint that might have been lost in a collector’s filing cabinet in Saginaw, Michigan, or an archive in San Diego, California, can be shared worldwide in an instant. Dedicated craftsmen who believe in the value of keeping earlier machines alive can build parts (sometimes using CNC technology they could only have dreamed at in 1945!) to eke out decades more use from simple and robust machines: cars, drill presses, audio equipment, whatever.

Back in the ’60s, AM radio was often the only way to listen to rock and roll. These days, it’s seemingly all talk radio. Digital music means that with some subtle changes, you can listen to whatever you want through your original radio.

Digital Music

I grew up in the cassette era, when the roadsides fluttered with the shattered remains of people’s favorite tunes. I watched FM radio die a slow death of strangulation by focus group. I am super grateful that thanks to digitization, it’s possible to carry the music of your choice on your person and, with some clever wiring, even pipe it directly into the amplifier of a vintage radio.

Apple’s successful extermination of the 3.5-mm jack standard has put a new wrinkle in this since I last arranged it, but adding an aux input to a vintage radio is not an insurmountable task. You’re rewarded with that “warm, rich” tube sound from your monoaural dash speaker. Perhaps not a treat for the full audiophile, but, like gear whine and the smell of warm vinyl, a proper sensory experience for a vintage car. It’s a part of the appeal.

Space-age materials like Viton O-rings and silicone gaskets were still just dreams in 1962, but today they are the easiest way to seal up a drippy ’62 Corvair.

Aerospace-grade Materials and Processes

While I’m grateful that vintage machines have room for my decidedly analog/mechanical level of wrenching, I’m also utterly chuffed to live in an era where modern materials and precision machine work can be applied to produce unheard of levels of power, smoothness, and longevity from long-obsolete designs. Much like a woodworker is thrilled by the opportunity to work with dense-grained, old-growth lumber, the extra-sturdy, basic building blocks of antique cars and other machinery can be refined beyond the wildest dreams of their designers.

I just bought a set of silicone gaskets to re-seal the rocker covers and oil pan on my ’62 Corvair (I need one for the Powerglide pan too, but they are out of stock). When the Corvair was new, paper and cork gaskets were the standard. Silicone, which was discovered in 1901, didn’t really take off as an industrial material until the ’80s. Nowadays, the existence of silicone gaskets, which are heat- and chemically resistant, permits a car owner to remove and replace parts with intermediate gaskets indefinitely, without having to use a new gasket each time.

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